Haute Mess? Food truck festival sells out but leaves a bad taste
By certain parameters, the Haute Wheels Food Truck Festival was a huge success. Over 5,000 people bought tickets to the sold-out event, bringing ever wider publicity and fans to the growing food truck community in Houston.
But many who came out on Saturday left hot, hungry and disappointed, as the unexpected surge of people led to epic lines, long wait times and food shortages.
"What took us by surprise was how everyone arrived at the same time on Saturday, lining up outside before noon," says Debra Ford, the media relations representative for Haute Wheels. "Everybody went straight to the food trucks, and they got backlogged pretty quickly."
Saturday wait times just to order climbed to one hour or more, with up to another hour to wait before the food was ready.
"People made a bee line for the Bus, we got hit hard and we never really recovered," said Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus. George Shea of Bullbutter Bros. Barbecue agreed, "We had a line from the moment the gates opened until the crowds were gone — 15, 30, 40 people."
Turner said his strategy of making miniature burgers instead of the regular-sized menu items cost him. "People figured it out and started ordering more. I had orders for $100 worth of miniature burgers, so obviously that's going to slow down the line when you've got another 400 tickets behind it," Turner said.
Ford said many people were able to try different trucks without waiting in too many lines by splitting up and each person ordering enough for the group. But some without a plan of attack where left hungry, with over half of the trucks out of food by 3 p.m., less than halfway through the day.
To the credit of the trucks and the organizers, the system was retooled to make the experience better on Sunday. The organizers sold only about 2,000 tickets (instead of 3,000 or so) and the food trucks stripped down their menus and began advertising the wait times.
"Sunday we started timing the tickets, and I'd use my speaker to say how long it was gonna be for people in line," says Turner. "Then if they want to wait, that's their decision."
When I arrived well after noon, I skipped the more well-known trucks (Fusion Taco, Eatsie Boys) in order to try new trucks and new menu items. My wait to order at Oh My Gogi! ran about 20 minutes, with an expected 40 minute wait for my quesadilla.
I used what I called the Disneyworld method, skipping from line to line to order and then returning later to pick up my food. I used the same method at Hit N Run Killer Street Food, a food truck newcomer, which cleverly split its line between the fish tacos, which were running a slight wait, and people like me who wanted burgers, which were held up almost half an hour waiting for onions and bacon to cook.
I might have maximized my time, but it didn't get me food any faster. It wasn't until I made it to my third truck, Bullbutter Bros. Barbecue, that the line was small and the food was ready in under five minutes. That efficiency was partly becuase Bullbutter is newer and still relatively unknown — they got their permit in April — and partly because by Sunday afternoon the truck sold out of everything except sausage on a stick.
Afterwards I found my way to Taqueria la Luz, one of the only authentic taco trucks participating. Hidden in a quiet corner, Luz had a 30 minute wait on Mexican-style hot dogs but I was able to grab a chicken guisada taco immediately. I stopped briefly for a (gross, undercooked) vanilla cake ball at Angie's Cakes, spent 10 minutes in line putting in an order at Good Dog Hot Dog, then made my return to Oh My Gogi! and Hit and Run.
One flaw with my Disney system was that just when I was getting full, all of a sudden I had food ready for me coming from every direction. And while lines, ticket prices and a lack of seating or shade has been a common complaint, everything I've heard about the food has been great.
My beef quesadilla from Oh My Gogi! was spicy and full of flavor. The Killer Burger from Hit N Run was worth the wait, a juicy mess of beef, cheese, grilled onions, bacon, and plenty of jalepeño. I loved the Luz chicken guisada taco as well, and though Shea confessed the sausage he served on Sunday wasn't his standard homemade fare, I enjoyed that as well, seasoned nicely and with a refreshing snap to the casing. All was great until I tried to bite into my (good!) hot dog from Good Dog and felt like I might be sick.
Six food trucks in two hours is probably a couple too many. Maybe getting the most out of the festival wasn't all it's cracked up to be.
Despite the issues, organizers say they are interested in holding another event, and every food vendor I spoke to would participate again.
"We were overwhelmed, but it was very lucrative for our beginning business," says Shea. "There was interest and curiousity and patrons were mostly supportive."
"We didn't make any money, or at least not the kind of money we make at a normal event," said Turner. "But we didn't do this for the money. I didn't open Bernie's eight months ago for the money. This was about getting the name out, and we were fortunate enough to see a lot of new faces."
Did you hang out at Haute Wheels? Did you have fun or do you want your money back?